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Unlike scholars in certain fields of learning, such as biology, where the boundaries are fairly well defined, those in the field of literature still debate exactly what the term means. When the celebrated 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica defined literature as “the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing,” few dared question it. Now, though, a century of such questioning has broadened the definition so that it can include nearly any text in any human language, even works in other media. Practically speaking, literature’s present-day definition is shaped by the perspective from which one regards it: scholars of a theoretical bent see it as embedded in questions of race, class, and gender, and highly variable over historical time, while those more aesthetically inclined tend to emphasize its continuity within traditions of arts and humane letters. One perspective typically mistrusts the other.

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The study of literature

In its modern descriptive sense, literature denotes written texts; by extension scholars have also applied the term to spoken or sung texts ("oral literature"), writings in particular subject areas ("medical literature"), other collections of material in a given language or national tradition ("English literature"), visual texts such as video and illustration, and published ephemera (“campaign literature”). It is often divided into historical periods ("Victorian literature") as well as into formal categories (prose, poetry, or drama) and genres (such as the epic, the novel, or the folktale).

In its more traditional prescriptive sense (that of the 1911 Britannica), literature connotes a particular quality found in the written culture of humane learning, the profession of “letters” (from Latin litteras), and written texts considered as aesthetic and expressive objects. In that sense, the art of “literature” differs from the science of “language,” as studied by theoretical linguists and cognitive psychologists such as Steven Pinker.

Literature as a subject worthy of academic study was first identified in the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the English word itself back to the 1200s (when it described familiarity with classical learning); not until the early 1800s was it used in the more modern sense. Classical authors of ancient Greece and Rome generally never recognized the study of “literature” as a discipline per se; rather, they looked at forms such as drama, history, poetry, philosophy, and mythology on their own terms, or in terms of various schools of philosophical or religious thought. With the revival of advanced learning in late medieval and Renaissance Europe, though, the focus of study became classical literature itself—the sense first recorded by the OED; a person of “letters” was one who knew the classical traditions, and could read the classics. Only after literature in modern vernaculars became too significant to ignore did the current sense of the word develop.

European universities long resisted according writers working in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and other vernacular languages the same status in their curricula as that given to writers of classical Latin and Greek. Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and their contemporaries were always conscious of the perceived inferiority of their native language, even as they rivaled and surpassed the literary achievements of their classical precursors. As scientific learning began to supplant classical learning in the early nineteenth century, universities added philology (the predecessor of modern linguistics) as a discipline, but that field focused more on the historical relationships between languages than on their literature.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the first institutions to offer instruction in literature were not the elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, but those geared toward students seeking to move up in the world, such as the London Working Men's College (founded in 1854). There, much to their surprise, sons of London bricklayers and artisans encountered teachers such as F.J. Furnivall, an early editor of the OED, who opened his classes with the dramatic announcement that he was about to return a national literature to its citizens, and then commenced reading aloud in Middle English from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. At the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching, J.C. Collins stressed the influence of classics on English literature, shifting studies of the language away from philology and toward the present-day discipline of comparative literature[1]. In the United States, the study of literature was introduced at normal schools (schools for the preparation of teachers, mostly women at that time), and subsequently at land grant universities, where English literature was given the place assigned at older universities to reading in Latin and Greek.

First Edition of Quiller-Couch

Early professors of English literature, among them Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and Henry Morley, devoted much of their attention to establishing a canon of suitable texts for study. In the twentieth century, this led to standardized anthologies, such as the Oxford and Norton anthologies of English literature. With the rise of the New Critics in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, scholars began looking at the literary text as a cultural object—a living repository of tradition extending across ages and civilizations. This movement coincided with expanding post-World War II college populations and helped elevate literature’s place and prestige in university curricula. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, proponents of poststructuralist theory began questioning the traditional literary canon and accepted hierarchies: Why, for instance, should lyric poetry be regarded as worthy of literary study, when comic books weren’t? Couldn’t we learn important things about contemporary culture from native American storytelling traditions as well as Italian opera? Practically speaking, this has meant that while college English departments still teach courses in Shakespeare and James Joyce, the sense of a highly exclusive canon of “great writers” is much diminished, and more kinds of literature are fair game for scholarly inquiry.

Scope of literature

In its broadest sense, literature came into being with the first use of pictographs, hieroglyphs, cuneiform, or alphabetic scripts, although it is more common to designate as "literature" only those texts which contain a degree of imaginative, emotive, allegoric, didactic, or descriptive content. Thus, business records, tallies, or lists are not generally included, even though such texts, which can be found in the earliest civilizations, are significant from a historical and archaeological perspective. The earliest literature evolved from the transcription of pre-existing oral traditional narratives, and progressed gradually to a point where such materials were first composed in written form.

Religious texts, while they have of course an entirely different significance to the adherents of the faiths to which they pertain, may also be considered literature when their narrative, figurative, or compositional qualities are foregrounded. The earliest instances of literature, therefore, those termed "ancient", include a variety of texts ranging from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh to the Hebrew Torah, and onward to the Hellenistic Odyssey of Homer. These texts, though clearly recognized as literature, share an origin in pre-literate cultures, and thus predate, in some sense, the modern use of the term. Later in human history, the deliberate writing of imaginary or fanciful texts, disseminated in written form to a literate audience, marks the first fully self-conscious literary traditions. In this context, although still considered ancient, might be placed such compositions as the Latin Aeneid of Virgil, the Chinese Songs of Chu, or the Greek lyrical poetry of Sappho. With improvements in the production and dissemination of written texts, from Roman copyhouses to the invention of the printing press, along with the increase of a literate reading public, a third sense of "literature," and the one most commonly used today, came into being. Specifically, literature encompasses all imaginative writing in any language, as well as essays, criticism, travel writing, biographies, memoirs, diaries, and collections of letters.

Literary media

Literature was first recorded in pictographic and alphabetic systems of writing, which were either incised on clay tablets or stone, or written with inks or dyes on various flat organic media such as papyrus or parchment. The development of alphabetic systems, in which characters stood for sounds instead of things, by the Phoenician and Greek cultures, enabled a rapid advancement in the variety and dissemination of written literature. In earliest times, such documents were generally prepared and stored on long sheets rolled into scrolls, but beginning in the second century CE, the codex, a bound set of trimmed sheets with a cover, began to predominate; this is the ancestor of the modern book.

The introduction of paper to Western Europe in the later Middle Ages greatly reduced the cost of written manuscripts, and the invention of movable type in 1450 led to to the printing of books in large numbers, and still further reduction in cost. Further refinements to the printing process, such as machines which could cast whole blocks of type at once, led to the emergence of print as a mass medium in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with new formats such as magazines and newspapers printed in thousands of copies, both for subscribers and for sale at booksellers and newsstands. Genres such as the novel gained tremendous new audiences through appearances in periodical and serial forms, bringing writers such as Poe, Dickens, Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs to a mass audience, and establishing literature as a popular medium.

In the later twentieth century, the field of popular literature continued to expand, both through the introduction of mass-market genres such as the dime novel and the illustrated press, and via the new commitment to public education and developing a literary curriculum of standard school texts. Established genres, such as detective fiction and science fiction, gained new audiences through the introduction of the paperback book, printed on inexpensive paper with a thin cardboard wrapper, and sold for a small fraction of the cost of a hardcover book. The large number of young readers led to a great expansion of children's literature and adolescent literature, as well as to new popular forms such as the comic book, which in recent years has emerged as a medium for adult fiction in the form of graphic novels.

With the advent of new media and technologies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, texts are often stored and transmitted electronically, magnetically, or digitally, without ever being printed on paper; they also often include, or are linked to audio, video, or multimedia content. Speech can now also be recorded, stored, and transmitted, so that some literary historians, such as Walter J. Ong, regard this as an age of "secondary orality". Such changes will doubtlessly expand and alter the definition of literature, just as did earlier technological developments.

Formal categories

A formal distinction common to many literary traditions is that between poetry and prose. Although the precise distinction between these two categories varies somewhat among world literatures, and though the boundaries between them have grown more blurred according to certain modern literary theories, it may generally be observed that poetry depends upon a relatively fixed array of metrical and phonological patterns used as repetitive devices, and involves a more densely interconnected arrangement of imagery and metaphor. In Old English poetry, as in the earliest Latin verse, a fixed pattern of stressed syllables, with the alliteration of their initial sounds, provides the basic structure, whereas in ancient Greek poetry, the length of the syllables was the primary principle. Rhyme, the assonance of the final sounds of words or lines, is one of the most common and recognizable options of poetic structure. Prose, of course, especially prose described as "poetic", may partake of all these qualities as well, though generally not in such a dense and closely patterned manner. Modern poetry also includes forms such as free verse and concrete poetry, which depart from the strict poetic meter or earlier forms, or attempt to abandon formal constraints altogether.

Prose is a far more inclusive category, and indeed envelops a wide variety of texts, such as business letters, instruction manuals, newpapers, memos, lists, contracts, speeches, and legal documents, which may not be considered literature at all. The earliest epic narratives were poetic in form, and prose was more generally reserved for the writing of history, religious instruction, or descriptive accounts of events or travels. The modern western tradition of literary prose emerged in the later Middle Ages, in texts such as Boccaccio's Decameron, or the prose segments of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales such as the Tale of Melibee, which Chaucer himself describes as "a litel thing in prose". By the time of the Renaissance, literary prose tended to take the form of extended essays, such as Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, or in narratives now regarded as early antecedents of the novel such as Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller. From the eighteenth century onward, literary prose has largely comprised either narrative fiction or essays, along with collections of personal letters, biography, and autobiography.


The evolution of various genres of literature has varied considerably in different languages and cultures, although some very general categories can be outlined. Much early imaginative literature can be classed as epic; within this category one would find texts as various as the Odyssey, the Mahabharata, the Finnish Kalevala, the Elder Edda, or the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Epic literature is marked by a strong, central narrative, often focused on the deeds of a single heroic figure, and featuring elaborately detailed accounts of battle. The Greek term "lyric" also has close equivalents in many world literatures; lyric poetry is generally written in short stanzas or strophes, with an emphasis on image and affective emotion. Significant lyric poets in world traditions have included Sappho, Li Po, Kabir, Keats, and Dickinson.

Another early and continuing form, dramatic literature, consists of words and actions to be spoken and performed upon a stage by actors; while it has often been recorded in writing and print, the primary venue for this form of literature is theatrical performance. In ancient Greece, where plays evolved out of the religious observances of Dionysus, the works of Aristophanes, Sophocles, and others retain their force after two millennia. Significant world playwrights include Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Beckett. Some of the paradigms of the stage extend to those of cinema film, and today film studies are often conjoined academically with the study of literature.

In the past few centuries, the novel has emerged as one of the dominant literary forms of modern literature, combining some features of the epic (such as a strong, central protagonist) with elements of historical narrative, travel writing, and the naturalistic dialogue of plays. Many claim Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605, 1615) as the first novel, though some assign it instead to the category of mock epic. Among the great practitioners of the novel over the centuries since have been Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, and Faulkner. Novels themselves, from their first appearance, have been categorized in a variety of topical or formal sub-genres, such as the picaresque novel or the epistolary novel, as well as broader thematic categories such as science fiction, detective fiction, or fantasy.

National literatures

De Vulgari Eloquentia

Although their names imply otherwise, national literatures often emerged before the emergence of modern nation-states. Dante, famously, in De Vulgari Eloquentia, his defense of writing in Italian, declared that literary Italian must be "curial", or "of the manner of the Italian court"" - even though, at the time he wrote there was no such singular Italian state. Like Chaucer and other medieval poets, he wrote before the language of his compositions reached its modern form. The writers of the Renaissance were a vital part of the emergence of their respective national literatures, though some, like Sir Thomas More, eschewed their own vernacular in favor of Latin. Even writers whose works now seem essential to their national literature, such as Goethe or Shakespeare, only became legitimate subjects of serious academic consideration very late in the nineteenth century, when national vernacular literatures became subjects for schools and universities. Today, at a point when literary works are frequently translated into other languages soon after their publication, and literacy rates around the world are at historic highs, there is a growing sense of an international audience for literature.

Not all the study of literature takes place along national lines; comparative literature is one academic discipline that engages in the study of literature in an interdisciplinary and transnational context. The relationships between the national literatures of former colonial powers has also led to postcolonial literature's emergence as a significent area of study. Other interdisciplinary fields with close ties to literature, such as film studies and cultural studies, also move readily across the old boundaries of national and ethnic literatures.

The future of literature

In 2003, poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, noted that the average American spent a mere twenty-four minutes per day reading, compared to more than four hours spent watching television. "The decline of print as our culture's primary means of codifying, presenting, and preserving information isn't merely a methodological change," he observed, "it is an epistemological transformation."[2] This trend, combined with the proliferation of new media for literary expression—such as e-books, "blogs" and other online vehicles, audiobooks, "podcasts," text messaging, and other technologies—could be seen as cause for alarm about the future of letters, especially on the part of devotees of traditional written literature. Yet Gioia and other literary futurists suggest that the likely outcome is not the end of literature, but new ways in which the literary impulse expresses itself through new media. In other words, the future of literature may have less to do with traditional literacy and letters than anyone can predict.


  • The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907-1921).
  • CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture
  • Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.
  • Totosy de Zepetnek, Steven, Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.
  • Ashcroft, Bill, et. al., The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York Routledge, 2002 (ISBN 0415280206)
  • Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature. 10th ed. New York: Prentice-Hall, 2005. (ISBN 0131344420)
  1. Kearny, Anthony. "John Churton Collins and the Attempt to Link English and Classics." British Journal of Educational Studies 29:3 (1981), 258-267
  2. Gioia, Dana. "Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture." Hudson Review 56.1 (Spring 2003).